When you think of hormones, what first springs to mind? PMS? A quick temper? Hormonal acne? Increased sexual drive? For a lot of people, you only really pay attention to your hormones when you feel like they’re out of whack. Hormones often go out of whack during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and puberty; but other internal and external environmental stressors can also cause hormone imbalances. So if you suspect your hormones might be to blame for your monthly breakout, find out here as we examine the role of hormones in the human body.
The endocrine system (ECS) is made up of a number of glands that are responsible for producing and secreting hormones. This includes the pituitary, hypothalamus, pineal, thyroid, parathyroid and adrenal glands, as well as the pancreas, ovaries and testicles (depending on your gender). As with all systems in the body, the ECS is responsible for maintaining homeostasis – a state of stability among physiological processes, for optimal functioning. The way it does this is by secreting chemical substances, known as hormones.
Hormones are complex chemicals, responsible for a variety of functions and processes in the body that can alter your mood, caloric intake, the quality of your sleep, skin and fertility, amongst others. The main function of the ECS is to regulate hormonal release to maintain balance in all of the above, so that you feel and function well. The hormone produced depends on the gland it is secreted from and the organ or tissue it is directed to. For example, the pituitary gland is located in the brain and produces hormones like growth hormone and prolactin that affect growth and reproduction. When the pituitary gland secretes these hormones, a female’s breasts lactate and grow to feed her child.
It’s not necessary to know the hormones secreted by which gland and when, because there are more than 200 hormones in the ECS and understanding them all would be complex and unnecessary. For most people, it’s only advantageous to understand the hormones that have the biggest effect, and to understand what symptoms are reflective of an imbalance.
It’s difficult to make a definitive list of the ‘key’ hormones because it varies a lot between individuals, however these are some of the hormones that are helpful to understand.
Estrogen is one of the sex hormones, alongside testosterone, and is one of the most well known hormones, partially due to its contribution to our sex drive and reproductive function. Both men and women have testosterone and estrogen, in varying quantities depending on the gender.
Research shows that too much testosterone in women can cause acne, hair loss and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Too much estrogen in men can stimulate breast tissue growth, erectile dysfunction, depression or muscle catabolism. Low levels of sex hormones in both men and women, can weaken the immune system, increase fat storage, decrease sex drive, cause mood disturbances, interfere with sleep and even cause infertility.
Another well known hormone, cortisol is the stress hormone. This stress can be due to sensory overload, needing to meet a deadline, exercising too frequently, drinking too much coffee or not sleeping enough. Whatever is causing you stress, is causing a cortisol spike. Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism and storage, as an evolutionary adaptation to provide extra energy to handle the stressful event. However, this evolutionary adaptation has become maladaptive, because stress in the 21st century does not often require extra energy, so the extra energy is stored as fat.
Research shows that being able to maintain healthy levels of cortisol is integral to avoid weight gain, have a healthy insulin response, moderate food cravings, to have energy when you wake up and to perform well during exercise.
Progesterone is another hormone that is involved in fertility and menstruation. It’s a steroid hormone that is secreted by an endocrine gland after ovulation during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. Progestin is a synthetic version of the naturally occurring hormone and is common in contraceptive pills, combined with estrogen. The role of this hormone is to prepare the endometrium for potential pregnancy after ovulation, triggering the thickening of the uterus lining to fertilize an egg.
Low progesterone levels can cause abnormal bleeding, irregular periods, abdominal pain and miscarriages.
Your thyroid gland releases these two major hormones that play an important role in regulating your metabolism, heart rate, energy levels, body temperature and contributes to bone and skin maintenance. When your thyroid hormone levels are low, your metabolic rate decreases causing weight gain, a cold body temperature, constipation, muscle weakness and water retention, this is known as hypothyroidism. Hyperthyroidism on the other hand, does the opposite.
Serotonin is your happy hormone. It is integral in your mood, social behavior, appetite, sleep, memory, sexual drive and digestion. Depleted serotonin levels can be characterized by low sex drive, digestive issues and poor cognitive performance, whereas excess serotonin can cause depression or anxiety.
Insulin plays an essential role in metabolic functioning and anabolism. When we consume carbohydrates, they release into our bloodstream, prompting an insulin release to signal to the cells to store excess energy. When an individual becomes insulin resistant, they often develop obesity and type 2 diabetes, two of the most common diseases in the US today.
What happens to our hormones during menopause?
In the years leading up to menopause, our hormones change. The number one change is a decline in estrogen levels, resulting in vaginal dryness, fatigue, hot flashes and night sweats and a decreased sex drive. Progesterone and testosterone also decrease, affecting sexual function and cause periods to stop. As well as this, the decline in these hormones can also cause cognitive changes like poor memory recall and mood fluctuations. You can manage the extent to which these changing hormones affect you by integrating holistic health practices into your life to rebalance hormones, which leads us on to our next point…
How can we regulate our hormones?
If you experience symptoms associated with hormone imbalance like acne, rapid weight gain or loss, fatigue or mood fluctuations, adjusting your lifestyle can help to support a healthy ECS and balanced hormones. Here are the top things you can do:
- Consume a varied nutrient dense whole foods diet
- Minimize your intake of refined carbohydrates, sugar, alcohol, coffee and inflammatory food
- Engage in regular exercise at a moderate intensity with proper recovery
- Decrease carbohydrate intake
- Increase healthy fat consumption
- Manage stress
- Sleep seven to nine hours a night
- Regulate your eating pattern
- Practicing deep breathing
The treatment for hormone balancing depends on the individual in question, each individual may have different symptoms, genetic predispositions, triggers and lifestyle factors that may influence the type of treatment they need. If you have concerns that you may have a hormonal imbalance, reach out to a holistic healthcare practitioner who can provide a treatment plan that is specifically designed for you, so you can find balance in your life.
When we take care of our body, by treating it with care, love and respect, our body serves us well. Our ECS maintains homeostasis, our hormones are effective and we perform optimally in all that we do. Our hormones define the way we look, the way we feel, and the way we show up in the world, so make sure you are supporting them, rather than causing flux.